Anatomy of a Teabag
Tea bags have been a popular way to consume tea for more than 100 years now. The original hand sewn fabric bags may no longer be on the market, but there are now more options than ever for how to make simple tea bag tea. We’re about to breakdown the variables that make one tea bag different from another and take a closer look at the anatomy of tea bags.
The Tea Bag Proper:
The tea bag itself has three major components. Shape, material, and ease of use. Shape is the most obvious, and generally the most important. Tea bag shapes can range from two dimensional squares and circles to 3-dimensional cubes and pyramids.
Generally more volume is better for larger leaves. This is because dry tea is usually shaped – curled or rolled. As the hot water penetrates the dry leaves, the leaves unfurl and stretch out their ends. If the leaves cannot completely unfurl – as in the case of smaller bags – then the covered parts of the leaf are not giving up much flavor. This means one part of the leaf is being oversteeped while the other parts are understeeped. This leads to an overall less flavorful tea with more ‘muddied’ flavors. Although any three dimensional shape should give good bag volume, pyramids are the most efficient use of materials, and are thus the most prevalent 3-d shape.
The tea bag material is important for two reasons. First, bags can deaden taste. Some paper bags can impart a slight paper taste that overall lessen the quality of the tea. Thinner bags reduce this problem, but experience shows a certain number of them break open in your cup, especially if used to make iced tea in coffee shops. Better quality tea bags are often made using nylon or silk, both of which can be used to make tea bags with larger volumes that won’t break.
The second reason is how environmentally friendly the bag production is. More carefully made bags are biodegradable and many are made out of recycled materials.
Ease of use is fairly self explanatory. It is easier to add and remove a teabag from a cup when it has a stable string. Many cheaper tea bags do not have a string, and while this can be overcome without difficulty, it does detract significantly from the convenience of the bag.
The Tea Leaves:
While important, the tea bag can only modify the quality of the actual tea. The tea itself is a more important factor in the finished product. Tea is broken again into three main factors: originally quality of whole leaf tea, the size grade of the tea, and the processing method. These three factors are all intimately related as a decision in one usually determines the others.
The original quality, while the most important, is the most difficult because usually we do not get to know much about the original tea plant. Suffice to say, most tea that is destined for tea bags comes from trees that favor the hardiest and most abundant harvests, not the varieties with the best flavor. Grown in hotter regions and picked year round, these teas contain relatively little of the tasty compounds that make up higher quality loose leaf teas. Quality tea requires that the trees rest between seasons, but demand dictates that most tea is picked whenever possible. Teas made with lower quality leaves will taste both flat and unclean.
Size grade is another factor, but not necessarily the deciding one. Higher quality tea bags often have larger leaves. This is because with larger leaves it is easier to control infusion. More surface area means faster extraction of tea compounds, and when tea is cut into very small pieces, there is a much, much larger area. This fast extraction yanks all of the flavors – good and bad – out all at once. With larger leaves, the better flavors usually come out first and are not overwhelmed by bitterness and astringency. Another factor is that larger leaves are able to be resteeped and are thus more economic.
Books can be written on processing teas, but generally there are orthodox methods that loose leaf tea goes through, and then there are automated methods that use giant machines and generally lend a more generic and bland flavor. The most famous of the automated methods is CTC which stands for crush, tear, curl. It is a production method for black tea that turns the leaves into hard pellets and standardizes the flavor.
This knowledge can help you make judgments about which teas to buy, and if you find you do not like a certain tea bag, it can help you understand what went wrong. Nothing can ever compete with your senses however, and as much as we like to get philosophical about tea, we always go by the rule that taste is the final word.